I’m sitting at the bar in the lovely Newark Liberty Renaissance Hotel. In an hour or two, I’ll be listening to Andy Thomson and later, Dan Barker. I’ve just returned from hearing Sean Faircloth speak. (He’s the Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America, by the way.) Yesterday’s highlights included Cecil Bothwell, the Ashville City Councilman who ran headlong into a religious test for office after his recent win in the election, as well as Darrel Ray, a psychologist who spoke about the “mind virus” qualities of religion.
It’s funny how many themes have converged for me in the last 24 hours. I’ve been thinking for a couple of weeks now about two subjects: (1) How emotion and unconscious psychological mechanisms affect the human mind, and (2) the desperate need for effective and large scale social and political influence from the secular community in America. Apparently, these are memes that have made their way to the front of the collective atheist mind recently, because that’s what 80 percent of the discussions this weekend have involved. I thoroughly enjoyed Darrel Ray’s discussion of hypnotic techniques in religious services, especially when he demonstrated it by hypnotizing half the audience while explaining how to hypnotize half of an audience. (Well played, worthy opponent…) He discussed the mental switch that turns off when a concept has been hypnotically introduced and reinforced with trigger words, and how such “programming” can facilitate increased compartmentalization of cognitive dissonance. (I bought his book, and he was kind enough to autograph it for me. Hopefully, I’ll have time to do a proper review of it over the next week or two.)
It was very ironic to me that the next speaker I heard was Sean Faircloth. He discussed the ten year plan for The Secular Coalition for America, and its goal of doing exactly what I’ve been jabbering on about for two weeks — getting average Americans to empathize with atheists. It was even more ironic that rather than focusing on his subject, I was marveling at his use of hypnotic techniques in his speech. He would have made a powerful preacher. It didn’t hurt him that his subject was something near and dear to most of us here, but there is no denying the power of his speaking techniques on the audience’s reaction. The whole time, people throughout the crowd were nodding in rhythmic agreement, clapping enthusiastically, and empathizing with Sean, and more importantly, with each other. The audience was a unified whole, and not because we’re all atheists. Sean orchestrated it brilliantly with an emotionally moving speech. I was very impressed.
I was also moved to action. That’s why I’m here. I needed to do something active. I needed to be part of the solution. I have a lot more thoughts on exactly how to be part of the solution, but right now I want to focus on one in particular. I believe that in our collective rejection of religion, we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater. There are many aspects of religion that are useful, practical, and powerful, and we need to exploit them as vigorously as the religious. Here are a few that I think are most important:
- Regardless of whether they practice what they preach, religions preach love and compassion. We need to do the same thing. Love sells. One of the things that’s incredibly alluring about fundamentalist Christianity is their use of words like “freedom” and “love.” In a profoundly Orwellian way, they’ve subtly redefined these words into symbols for totalitarian political dominance, but the new convert doesn’t know that. All they know is that they are being bombarded by talk of love, acceptance, freedom, and relief from pain. These are powerful avenues into the human subconscious. We atheists need to recognize the universal human desire for love and acceptance, and we need to find ways to sell them in non-religious ways.
- Religion invests heavily in the science of marketing. Mega-churches often resemble malls or amusement parks more than anything else. Christian rock bands pack out stadiums with cleverly packaged images, sounds, and advertising. Dr. D. James Kennedy and hundreds of other “outreach specialists” hold weekend retreats where ministers and laypersons alike are taught the science of sales, and spend hours rehearsing, honing their speeches, and developing interpersonal skills and the power of persuasion. I believe a lot of atheists have been negligent. Perhaps it all feels too manipulative to them. They prefer to stay in intellectual ivory towers, confident in the truth of their philosophical approach. (I’m pointing at least one finger back at myself.) But this country is in political crisis right now. There is a legislated divide between theists and non-theists, and it’s literally killing our children.* Our legislative branch is heavily populated by fundamentalists, who are beholden only to their own interests. And the way they got where they are is by selling themselves effectively. We need to do the same thing.
- Religion is not ashamed to ask for money. In fact, they’ve found ways to demand it. I don’t suggest that we need to go so far as demanding financial fealty, but let’s face it. Politically, we’re out-gunned by at least thousands to one. There are anywhere from 30 to 40 million atheists/non-theists/agnostics in America, which represents a vast potential reserve of funds for political activism, local support groups, secular alternatives to churches, and advertising. We need to get off of our high horses and live in the real world where we’re being legislated into second class citizens by an elitist minority. We’re playing with a legislative handicap, which makes it even more imperative that we all come up out of the pocket and help.
I’ve done this several times before, but I think this is important enough to keep doing. Please join the Secular Coalition for America, and send them money. They are the atheist’s equivalent of the ACLU, but they’re even more than that. One of the organizational goals of the SCA is to achieve legislative equality for all Americans, regardless of religious affiliation. If they can succeed in ending the government sponsorship of religion and exemptions from government regulation, it will mean that we’ve closed a multi-billion dollar loophole that takes your tax money and gives it to people who do not agree with your ethics. Consider it an investment in your own economic future. Imagine the revenue increase if every church in America had to pay taxes! Imagine if the mega-churches had to obey local zoning ordinances and land use plans.*
No… seriously. Do it right now. It only takes a minute, and you can spare fifty bucks or so. I promise.
No… really. I’m completely serious. Do it. Right now. Come back and finish reading when you’re done. This is one of the easiest and most effective things you can do right now to make America a better place for you to live in.
Ok. Now that that’s done, I’d like to encourage you to spend some time thinking about these ideas. I’d love to hear your feedback, and I’ll have a lot more to say about it in the days to come, but I’ve committed myself to becoming a more active and productive member of the nonbeliever community, and to working to change the course of American society and politics, for my good and the good of everyone else.
* Sean illustrated this point with the story of two children in separate incidents who died after receiving negligent care from religious daycares, who are legally exempt from government inspection, and literally have no obligation to anyone to uphold any standards of care, cleanliness, or ethics.
** One of the mega-churches in Colorado successfully circumvented a comprehensive land use plan and effectively made their own rules about what could be built where, based entirely on their own economic growth, and ignoring the good of the community. This was made possible by a religious exemption clause in the Colorado constitution.